8 tips for becoming (and remaining) an effective climate communicator

I remember watching the anger boil in his face as he took the question from the audience. He was a distinguished scientist and climate researcher fielding a technical objection to some recent research. But the technical details were not really the issue. "Your missing the point!" he blurted, then apologetically back-stepped into a technical answer that did, ultimately, answer the man's question. But this battle was already lost. The audience member nodded vapidly at the response, and then likely went on denying this most recent piece of the climate solution. What he needed was not a technical response, but to have his doubts recognized,  and responded to. This exchange, as with every exchange on climate change, is as much about the latent content between each party as it is about the details.

There is latent content behind every climate change exchange. On the surface, we may be discussing one detail or another--the pros and cons of solar proliferation, storage and transport challenges, or the latest climate research and its implications--but beneath that surface content there exists a heated, unconscious dialogue between two unique individuals, each with their own conscious and unconscious mental constellations. Drawing from my work in relational dynamic psychotherapy, here are a 7 things to keep in mind as you undertake the important, noble and often challenging task of communicating about climate change:

1) That person is a part of you. It's impossible to talk to someone without accessing parts of our selves that they remind us of. You too might have once denied climate change. You too might have once said: "Yeah, so what can I do about it?" How you relate to that part of yourself is how you relate to them. Know thyself. Love that part of yourself that is embodied in the person you're about to argue with. If you're going to be effective you need to embrace who you are, were, and might have been, all at the same time. Do not elevate yourself above them because you feel you know something that they don't. People hate that and if that's your approach, they will hate you and the ideas you're espousing. Accept them and their ideas as your own and be respectful about your differences of opinion, which there are sure to be.

Anger is a tell-tale sign that you may benefit from checking in with yourself. Figure out why this person makes you angry and you will be one step closer to achieving your goal. The person who most ignites your anger is a person you have something to learn from. Perhaps they are a younger version of you? Another stubborn old man, just like your father? How intolerable! Find the source, and you will find mastery.

2) Manage your aggression. Sometimes, it might seem warranted to want to reach out and shake a person and say "Why don't you get this!?" Don't do that. You could be arrested. Aggression is an important piece of the climate change mentality--the mentality that is causing climate change. It's insidious, unconscious forms are largely behind our predominant relationship to the environment. You need to understand how aggression works. Where does it come from? What purpose does it serve? How do you relate to anger and aggression? Pay for good psychotherapy. It's worth every penny and it will make you much more effective at the challenge of communicating about climate change and sustainability.

3) People's defenses are there for a reason. Defenses provide us shelter from something we simply cannot tolerate. It's often not effective to try to break someone's defenses down all at once. In fact, it's often impossible and could be psychologically dangerous. Learn the function of their defenses and teach yourself to empathize with why they exist. See the fear that brought them to life and acknowledge this in what you say and how you say it. Honor their defenses and welcome them into your conversation. Defenses are like a finger-trap, once you've been drawn in, the harder you struggle the worse it gets. Don't try to break it or force it.

4) Don't break what you can't fix. If you're going to help someone work through their defenses about climate change, you need to give them something to replace them with.  If environmental collapse is too terrifying, offer them the way out with specific steps they can take to join you in your quest to save humanity from climate change. Articulate your solution and have it neatly packaged and ready to deliver. If you fumble, they might not take it. In the same vein, stop needing them to change. If you need a certain outcome from a conversation, say, convincing someone that they can help stop climate change, any indication that things aren't headed in that direction stands to throw you off course. Keep it a a goal, but do not need or expect the outcome. People can feel that and they hate it.

5) Be sure of what you're saying. If you believe yourself, so will they. It is the unfortunate reality that self-assuredness is appealing, even if what we're "sure" about is completely wrong. It is seductive, like Bernie Madoff in a black nighty, until you realize that it's Bernie Madoff in a black nighty. Don't be Bernie Madoff. There is substance behind what you say. Be familiar with the research. Be clear on your facts and their sources. Be sure of yourself and damn sure about why you feel that way.

6) Walk the walk. Literally. Authenticity has a certain ring to it. If you're talking about reducing carbon footprints, transitioning to renewable energy sources, local food, or whatever you're working on communicating about, start first with yourself. Much of my work as a psychotherapist involves helping people make the leap from talking about things "out there" (i.e. not within themselves) to working on them "in here", in the therapeutic dynamic and in themselves. It's easy to point outward at things that need to change and you're probably right about those things. But this should not displace your responsibility to work inward.

The various forms of projection are one of the most common psychological defenses and we all employ them on a regular basis, in some way or another. Own your carbon footprint. Nobody else can take responsibility for the food you eat, the car you drive, or the air you breath. Your impact is yours. If you're asking people to work on theirs, work on your own. It will make you much less likely to become angry, frustrated or disillusioned by this work. Working on yourself will make working with others drastically easier. Effortless, almost. It is often the case that our need for others to change is tied to our unconscious wish that we, ourselves, could be different. Break the projective cycle. Again, good psychotherapy can go a long way here.

If you're curious, yes, I bike most places, grow my own vegetables and am installing solar electricity in my home, among other efforts to reduce my personal contribution to climate change. Even these efforts are merely the tip of the iceberg. But we all have to start somewhere. Start where it makes sense for you.

7) Know why and how you came to this work. Feel it in your bones. Taste it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the spirit of communicating authenticity, it is vital to understand how you came to be aware of climate change and how that relates to the rest of your life. You don't have to share this with everyone or even anyone. But there is a certain ring to the words of the select few who have embarked on this journey. Make yourself one of them. Know your own truth and it will set you free.

8) Perform regular maintenance. Rehearse your speeches and one-liners. Hone your communicative craft. Participate in discussion groups and talk with your peers. This will help you stay sharp and up to date. Don't let the latest piece of compelling evidence slip through your grasp. Perhaps make a list of bookmarked and reliable sources that you reference and update it each quarter? Staying fresh will prevent you from sounding like the climate change version of a Tickle-me-Elmo. If you start to become repetitive it will show. Mindless repetition is not a becoming color on you.


Benjamin White, LCSW is the founder of The Climate Within, and practices psychotherapy in Lafayette, Colorado. He welcomes your contact at ben@benjaminwhite.us


The sky is not falling: lessons learned from nature and climate change

I arrived in Boulder on September 11th, 2013, the first day of the historic 2013 floods. I spent Wednesday night in Fourmile Canyon at a little creekside hotel. I watched as the quaint little creek turned into a raging river, flooding the far side of the property and floating away a large gas grill like it was a an innertube. Boulders tumbled down stream and crashed into the wooden footbridge that joined the hotel rooms to the now-flooded picnic area across the creek. Eventually, I decided to return to my room where I fell asleep to the sound of water and dreamt of floods and changing landscapes.

            When I mention to people that I was in Fourmile canyon that night I am frequently met with shock and awe. “Were you okay?” They ask, often concerned that I had spent the night in one of the hardest hit areas. “Yes” I explain, “The hotel is built on solid granite on the high side of the river.” However, this technical explanation does little to quell the fear instilled by the thought of spending a night in a narrow canyon during a 1000-year flood. There is something innately unnerving about powerful natural phenomena that obscures the often important details of the event and limits our ability to see the nuances of what is unfolding. Nature is always more intricate than we can currently observe.

            The floods made national news and lots of people who live on the Front Range got calls from friends and family during those days of rain. The vast majority of folks who live on the Front Range, however, were relatively unaffected. Homes that lay on the outside corner of a bend in a river saw water leap the banks and flood the house, or worse, the force of the water eroded the land at the bend in the river and the house collapsed. Water fanned out in flat areas drowning structures that lay there. Normally dry drainages in the mountains became raging torrents of mud and debris, washing out roads and anything that was built too close. There was so much water that it bubbled from the sewers where it then ran down hill and into neighborhoods that were nowhere near the flood plain of a creek or river. The ground was so saturated that water cascaded down hillsides turning the normally arid sagebrush ecosystem into ephemeral waterfalls. Some of these hillsides also collapsed as their once-strong soil became waterlogged and unstable.  Even in this widespread rain event where flooding was experienced from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, the hazards were localized. Only a handful of particular hydrological phenomena were responsible for the loss of life and property. The exact mechanisms of damage were very specific and difficult to foresee.

            Yet for all the different ways that damage was caused, there were also many ways in which damage was averted. Similar to what happens when a tornado or a wildfire hits a populated area, some houses were totaled while others merely feet away averted any major damage. The damage was specific to that terrain, at that point in time, with that particular pattern of rain. However, the perception of damage was different. The prevailing lore about the floods seems more akin to broad-brush strokes of destruction rather than the pinpointed areas of damage that were the reality. My experience of the flood stands as a reminder that nature is far more nuanced than it’s often given credit for, and natural disasters are not the indiscriminate catastrophes that we imagine them to be. Even natural disasters adhere to the laws of physics. Even hurricanes are tranquil at their core.

            The discussion around climate change is loaded with catastrophic rhetoric. Examples of sea level rise, ocean desalinization, the unchecked spread of tropical diseases, shifts in the magnetic poles of the earth, massive rapid expulsions of natural gas, no more snow, no more food, "the sky is falling"; the list of theoretical effects of climate change is long and growing. It seems that every week there is a new “earth shattering” effect of climate change that requires our immediate attention or else. Or else what? My intention here is not to take issue with the projections about climate change. I am not a physical scientist. Instead, I work with the human mind, which happens to be exceptionally good at misconceiving risk and consequences especially when danger is involved.

            There are many people who misconceive risk toward the negative end, negating the risk that climate change poses to us. There are also those with a tendency to misconceive risk on the positive end. The air of Armageddon that taints the climate change debate is an example of such a misconception. The nuances of the reality of nature—how it acts, what it does—have no place in the catastrophic rhetoric that surrounds climate change.  Mother nature is far more complex than the latest not-so-veiled proclamation of apocalyptic doom. Give mother earth a bit of credit, eh? The earth works in mysterious ways, and often not immediately. Nature is a process. Changes as significant as the climate not only take time, but also occur in unfathomably complex ways.

            I need to be careful here, since this line of thinking could easily lead down the familiar path of complacency. That is not my intention. Something is happening and climate change is the most significant event of modern history. However, it’s essential to note that the debate around climate change is steeped in urgency and annihilation. These are simply not the ways of nature. Urgency and annihilation are, however, frequent intruders in the human psyche, built on structures of anxiety that harken back to that earliest time in life when our only capacity is to elicit and accept care from our environment. The prevailing rhetoric around climate change is simply incongruous with the nature of nature.

            Paul C. Stern of the National Research Council recently said: “The only thing we can say accurately is that we don’t really know what’s happening.” Wise words, however we must be careful not to let this uncertainty shapeshift into complacency and disbelief of climate change. While I agree with Mr. Stern’s lauding of uncertainty, I’d add that we can also speak to our own realities and that the “real” reality of climate change lies somewhere at the intersection of our collective and subjective experiences of it, maybe with a little something that nobody’s thought of. Nature always surprises us.

            In my reality, much of our lives are predicated on consuming more resources than we create. In my reality, our culture childishly expects the world to be there “for us” and cannot tolerate any way in which it is not. In my reality, human beings are terrified of nature and need to keep it separate and subordinate. In my reality, the earth and its inhabitants are changing but human beings are ill equipped to predict the these changes. In my reality, climate change will be more complex and nuanced than anyone can imagine. In my reality, the sky is not falling and the sun will shine tomorrow.

At arm's length: creating "Nature" and keeping it "out there"

After a recent presentation at a conference I was approached by one of the audience members: "So, what elevation do you live at?" I thought it a peculiar question but I responded accurately nonetheless: "5200 feet" I said. "I lived at 9500 this winter though." I was a bit taken aback at my own pride in that statement, as though living in the mountains was something I wanted to flaunt. I wasn't sure why he was asking but it was like the elevation was a measure of achievement. Similar to how some people ask me how many 14'ers I've climbed. I always want to tell them that the most challenging day I've had in the mountains came on an unnamed 12,000 foot peak, and that elevation has little to do with it, at least down here at "normal" high elevations.

It's a peculiar conclusion really, that somehow being higher above the sea that you're closer to adversity, therefore closer to nature. It was similar back during the 2013 Colorado floods. When I told people I lived in Nederland, a town 15 miles West and high above Boulder in the foothills of the Front Range, most assumed that the floods must have been worse up there because it was "the mountains". "Oh my you live in Nederland? It must have been crazy up there."  In reality, Nederland was far enough West that it missed the heaviest rain. Furthermore, being at the top of the hill, everything ran down from there and there wasn't enough terrain above Ned to gather enough water and debris for widespread flooding. Some of the worst damage was in Eastern slope towns like Lyons and Longmont whose flat topography and downstream location lent itself to widespread flooding of rivers like the St. Vrain. The other areas that suffered the most were foothill towns like Jamestown and Gold Hill, which were low enough to see significant drainage from higher terrain and where soil was compromised due to recent fires. Add to that the mountainous terrain with lots of drainage features, roads that cross said features and the highest total rainfall in the area (more than 13" in 48 hours) and you had a "perfect storm", if you will. There was damage in some of the mountain communities but it certainly wasn't any worse than "down below", as Nedheads like to call Boulder. The reality of the aftermath was far more nuanced and complex than most people, even experts could comprehend. Nederland, contrary to popular assumption, was sitting high and dry.

Also contrary to the assumptions, I found life above 9,000 feet to be much easier than life in Manhattan where I was raised. Still, this notion that there is something difficult about nature is an important part of our cultural narrative AND, an essential piece of understanding the climate change mentality, that is, the mentality that's causing climate change.

Nobody really likes to live in nature. We're like nature's fun uncle; we love hanging out with him all day and playing as long as we can go home without him at night. Really living in nature can be quite uncomfortable and the people who do so are considered rugged, or somehow exceptional. In a forthcoming work, Hutchinson (2014) weaves a narrative about the evolving view of "nature" and "wilderness" in American culture. Drawing from a diverse set of works including Thomas Cole's 1828 Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Hutchinson describes the wilderness as a "dark, dangerous and violent, symbolic of all that man must rise above." He continues to describe even how many New England towns were built to protect against this grotesque wild place outside, houses clustered around a town square with large fields buffering the town from the wild woods. In the early Victorian era, carriages would draw their curtains as they passed by the beastly landscape of the mountains that we now revere as beautiful. To them, they were considered hideous (McFarlane 2003).

But now that we're more in control of this world we live in (or so we think) it's much easier to see these once intimidating landscapes as beautiful. The Tetons look a lot better from the comfort of a nice hotel with a bar and restaurant  downstairs. Cold, wet and downtrodden from a difficult ride 150 years ago, they might have more likely been visual reminders of difficulty, danger, and discomfort.

We've figured out how to keep nature out. We like nature, as long as we can play by our own rules, not hers. Central heat and air, aviation, modern medicine, electricity... So much of what makes a modern life "modern" is our ability to live outside the naturally occurring order of things. What's got two thumbs and likes eating pineapple in Colorado in July? This guy, that's who. I also would like it to be 68 degrees wherever I go, no matter what. So crank up the AC, thank you. And light! Let there be light with the flick of my finger, or, if you bought a Clapper in the 90's, the clap of your hands. And bring me some of those Maine Lobsters while you're at it. I don't care how far the ocean is. We're breaking the rules and we're doing it because it makes us more comfortable and improves our chance of survival.

However, I've always found it interesting that many people who we revere in our culture are people who have figured out how to play by nature's rules. In fact, a great deal of what we revere as accomplishments in a variety of fields are simply moments of clarity; someone has figured out how things work. Take cars for example: evolving knowledge of aerodynamics has made my 2005 Subaru more efficient than my 1988 Toyota. 17 years of innovation. We didn't change anything about the laws of nature in that time, someone just figured out how to pay attention better to what was really going on all along. 

Architects and landscape designers such as F.L. Wright and F.L. Olmstead were revered for their work, particularly their work with natural materials. Wright's Fallingwater house is among his best known designs because of it's integration of the natural landscape. Olmstead worked largely with natural landscapes like Central Park in New York (among hundreds of others) creating spaces that only now, nearly 100 years later, are coming into maturity and fulfilling his vision. When consulted about the design of the young Boulder, Colorado in 1910, he said "If, lulled by the security of a few seasons of small storms, the community permits (Boulder Creek) to be encroached upon, it will inevitably pay the price in destructive floods." (Carswell 2013). In this case, Olmstead was ignored until his warnings were repeated 40 years later but on the whole he is revered as a visionary. We revere these people who see how the world work as though they are geniuses. More accurately, they are simply better observers than the rest of us. The Wright's and Olmsteads of our world have suspended any conflict with nature for long enough to see it clearly. They don't try so hard to keep "nature" out, and the results are always impressive to those of us who do. How'd they ever figure that out? We might wonder. If we sought to rid ourselves of the need to keep nature out, or, even to call "nature" a separate word, we might also be graced with such moments of clarity.

Well, I've never revered myself as a genius, or bold, or rugged. I'm just a person working to resolve an internal conflict well enough to see what's been in front of me all along. So when someone sees me as "rugged" or "outdoorsy" or "nature-loving", I'm a bit taken aback since I'm only doing what feels natural. The only difference between Olmsteads and the rest of us is fear. At a sub-conscious level, fear is driving us to keep "nature" out of our lives. Furthermore, it is driving us to feel like there's something we need to keep out of our lives. Even further still, fear is driving us to consider that "nature" is even a thing at all, as though there were something different "out there" that wasn't "in here". Well, ask yourself this: what is the difference between your backdoor and your backyard? Where does nature begin and end? Do the laws of physics differ between K2 and your kitchen? Ok, perhaps that wasn't the best example. It's friggin cold up there at 28,000 feet and the oxygen is thin. But the fact remains: If we are ever going to play by the rules and become a sustainable civilization we need to resolve this problem we've created for ourselves: How can we work with something that we spend so much time trying to keep out of our lives?

The Forest Through the Trees: Latent Content in the Climate Change discussion

"Having been told that the world rested on a platform, which rested on the back of an elephant, which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, he asked… 'What did the turtle rest on?' Another turtle. 'And that turtle?' "Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down."

traditional wisdom via Clifford Geertz


The receptionist for the plumbers I hired was very sweet. She answered the phone in a cheery voice and seemed so concerned about each of my requests so I felt okay leaving her instructions about what needed to be finished on the job. Pouring concrete and fixing my fence. That was it. She reassured me that I’d be notified when to expect the workers but as hours turned to days and I hadn’t heard anything I got frustrated and called the emergency line. “Monday”, I was assured, and I hung up feeling slightly better. When Monday came and went I called and got the receptionist again and she reassured me that they would send a crew over that evening. Nobody came. What people say is not always the best gauge for where they really stand.

            I began to feel how I imagine my parents did when I told them repeatedly that I’d empty the dishwasher as a kid. Maybe, just maybe, if I said it convincingly enough that they would believe me and leave me alone just long enough to sneak off to bed without emptying the dishwasher.

            When it comes to climate change, assessing where we as individuals or WE as a broader culture are in relationship to the environment, it’s often more effective to look at how we live. Do you know anyone who talks about climate change from behind the wheel of a Prius, proudly toting their reusable bags? Maybe if we can just convince the world that we’re sustainable, we might also believe it. As a teenager, I think I did actually believe that I’d emptied the dishwasher a few times. I was that good...

            And so it goes for doing things that we don’t want to do. Who knows why the plumbers didn’t want to finish the job in my yard. I could write for days about why people don’t want to change behavior to counteract climate change but that is beyond the scope of this short post. I should note that there have been several enlightened papers and books written on psychoanalysis and climate change; what’s really happening in our relationships to the environment.

            When it comes to change, the proof is in the pudding. There are many, many people doing many wonderful and important things to combat climate change but when you look at the whole picture, it’s obvious we have a long way to go before we start patting ourselves on the back.

            Although I detest the term addict, I’ve worked with many clients who self-identify as such and I learned pretty quickly that the way to figure out how severely addicted they are is not by asking. When someone is ashamed of a behavior it is often more effective to observe how they act because they’re likely not to tell you the whole truth. "Are you drunk right now? I smell alcohol on your breath." "Of course not".

            This applies directly to our behavior in relation to the environment. If we want an accurate snapshot of where we are in relationship to the world we live in, we ought to look past our claims at the reality of our day to day lives. How many times did I drive to Boulder last month when I could’ve taken the bus or biked? I’m tempted to say “only a handful” but in actuality it was closer to two dozen. Does it make me a hypocrite that part of the reason I chose to live in Lafayette was the availability of public transportation, yet I continue to drive? No, it makes me conflicted and that makes me human.

            I spent the day listening to some very smart, very well-read academics talk about psychological to barriers to climate change at the 2014 New School Social Research Conference. They were all quite right. Every one of them. Change is difficult. People need immediate results. People are influenced by social factors. People distrust others and find it hard to commit to the communal good. Yes. It’s all true. But there was a glaring void in the panels today just as there is in the general conversation about climate change. Within this void is the shadowy and often indescribable content of the unconscious. If you take nothing else from Freud, allow this simple paraphrased statement to hold true: "We might not be aware of all the things that go on in our minds."

            In 1969, Harold Searles , a preeminent psychiatrist and researcher on schizophrenia wrote: "Human beings have complex relationships to the non-human environment that have great significance for human psychological life. We ignore the implications of the non-human environment at great peril to our psychological well-being."

            People tend to try to change in the world what they wish they could change in themselves and sometimes, if they’re lucky, they get both. When it comes to changing human behavior in relationship to the environment, I suspect that it’s something many people are struggling with both internally and externally, especially people who have committed to working against climate change. However, the problem is not “out there” in the Koch Brothers, or in some ultra-conservative caucus. Even if “the problem” is exemplified in such extreme forms as the often forsaken Tea Party, it will remain there unsolved until we locate within ourselves. Despite receiving much criticism for this perspective while I was a student of Social Work, I believe that social activism can sometimes provide a refuge from confronting the reality of our internal experience. Injustice is always in something "out there", conveniently away from our tender hearts yet still strangely powerful. While I don't eschew forms of social engagement entirely, they are inexorably linked to our individual emotional lives and only one can I effectively work with in a therapeutic relationship.

            The problem is always “in-here". I destroy the environment. Something had to die tonight so I could eat dinner. And you know what? Last week I burned a full tank of gas just so I could spend some time in “nature” for the day.  I once slept in my car with the engine running because I was cold. I kill spiders in my office and I justify it that it's for my clients. These are just petty examples of my relational imperfection to the environment. If I’m really being honest, a great deal of my life is based on a level of disregard for the world around me. Again, I’m merely human.

            Just as we need to be honest with ourselves about our own contributions to climate change so too do we need to be easy with ourselves. Sustainable psychic change rarely comes from being hard on oneself. I for one, always grow more when I’m good to myself. We need to stare courageously at the part of ourselves that is the Koch Brothers (and while we’re at it, the plumbing company owes me an apology) and hold the tension of the worst and best in us.

             Any large-scale change in how human beings interact with the natural world needs, among many other things, a rich and cogent understanding of what we’re really dealing with. When it comes to the vastly complex workings of the human mind there has yet to be a more useful tool than the still-evolving psychoanalytic theory. It's come a long way since Freud and we ignore its contributions to the struggle with climate change at great peril.